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Classical influences shape work (of Michael C. Lawrenchuk).

WINNIPEG

Raised by his grandparents, Gladys and William Moose, on the Fox Lake reserve in northern Manitoba, Michael C. Lawrenchuk grew up fluent in Cree and totally immersed in the storytelling traditions of his people.

He took his theatre training at the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, completing post-graduate training at the London Theatre School in England.

Lawrenchuk has taken on a number of different roles -- playwright, actor, political activist and chief of Fox Lake, husband to wife Rachel and father to five children.

In ways he had never intended, Lawrenchuk is weaving the strands of politics and art on his own literary loom.

"I never intended to be a chief. A few years ago, I wrote The Trial of Kicking Bear, the great warrior chief who brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota people, which led to the massacre at Wounded Knee. During research, I learned that Lakota people had crossed over into Canada, to Big Bear's camp. I read about Big Bear and became enthralled by this man's dignity and vision. I have been working on my Big Bear play for six years," said Lawrenchuk.

"I also studied problems faced by the Fox Lake reserve: negotiations with Manitoba Hydro for the devastation they caused our people. I came to Fox Lake, attended the Hydro compensation meeting, and listened to an Elder speak [in Cree] about our plight.... My cousin was doing a good job translating the words, but not the spirit behind them. I asked the Elder if I could try. Because of my theatre training and knowledge of English words, I was able to translate the spirit of what they were saying. Shortly after, they asked me to run for chief. I ran for election and won. As long as they like me, I will be here."

In partnership with Carol and Michael Greyeyes, Lawrenchuk is currently polishing his Big Bear play for production.

"This play is tragic and epic because of how we are telling the story, how heroic but futile it is to try to change the future; that the cultural genocide that took place during the time of Big Bear would have happened anyway. We are now in the same situation as First Nation people. Destined to be assimilated and wiped out as a distinct people.

"Canada doesn't want us to attain our individuality as Native people. There were equally powerful forces demolishing Indian culture in Big Bear's time, as there are today."

As a playwright, Lawrenchuk has the opportunity to create live performance pieces that combine storytelling, song and dance.

"Live theatre is a church where we are allowed to get reconnected with the spirit. Living, sweating actors stand in front of you, telling you a story. If the story is done well, if the playwright and actors have done their jobs, you will be purged. You will feel it with your body and soul. Nothing compares to a play well done. It is very primal, very old, the art of storytelling. If a play and a story can harness your imagination, it will stay with you for life."

Lawrenchuk is adamant that Native people should be in control of their own artistic destiny.

"We need to help our artists so they can save and tell our stories. I read about Thompson Highway and the difficulty he had mounting his play. I say, shame on us as Native people for not seeing enough of this stuff. Why don't we support our own artists, filmmakers, writers, playwrights, and actors? This means digging into our own pockets so that our artists can find a haven!"

Studying abroad changed Lawrenchuk's perception of Canada.

"Canada is seen as the best country to live in, but we have conditions on our reserves worse than some Third World countries. Our job as artists and politicians is to inform the greater public of the real conditions in this country."

Lawrenchuk has been influenced by classic Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.

"The first play that comes to mind is King Lear, who gave authority to his children, who then betrayed him. My favorite Greek playwright is Aeschylus who wrote Agamemnon. Those plays influenced the writing of Big Bear on an epic scale. In tragedy, man is always punished for arrogance when he defies the gods who have already decided how his life is going to turn out."

Shakespeare has had a powerful influence on Lawrenchuk, who credits the bard with a brilliant ability to tell a story and identify the human condition.

"His plays have had a profound effect on me, his words, his ability to dig down through the garbage, into the muck of who we are as human beings. Because Shakespeare had this effect on me, a struggling Native person, actress Libby Meson and I started an all-Native company called Shakespeare in the Red with a core group of classically trained actors who held workshops for Native actors all over the country. Our dream, to be able to launch full scale productions like The Winters Tale. We cannot count on non-Native people to produce our work. We have to do it for ourselves."

In Lawrenchuk's play, Big Bear is portrayed as a visionary hero and a tragic figure with human frailty and failings.

"The play opens with his `dream of blood.' Big Bear takes that as a sign. If he doesn't peacefully try to work out a deal with Canada, the land will be covered with blood. He delayed in signing the treaty, which hurt his people and angered his son to such an extent that his son hated him. His son took the side of the Metis when they rebelled against Canada the second time. Big Bear tried to talk his son out of fighting in the Frog Lake massacre. Because his son hates him so much, he does something very stupid. He starts the Frog Lake massacre. What Big Bear realizes is that he, himself, has caused the bloodshed. He didn't pull any triggers. He was a pawn in the gods' game."

As a tragic figure, Big Bear is neither hero nor villain. Lawrenchuk believes the people who came before shouldn't be idealized. He said the beautiful thing about Big Bear was that he tried, despite being faced with insurmountable odds and making incredible mistakes.

The epic vision of Big Bear will blend theatrical traditions from many cultures.

"We are integrating song and dance in a stylized presentation, designing the lighting and sets so that it will be like going to mass in the old days."
COPYRIGHT 2000 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sexsmith, Pamela
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Words:1088
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